Is there such a thing as a sulfite-free wine?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Is there such a thing as a sulfite-free wine?

—Lee H., Rockville, Va.

Dear Lee,

There’s such a thing as wine without any detectable sulfites, but I would venture to say there’s no such thing as an entirely sulfite-free wine.

Let me get my sulfite rant out of the way first. Sulfites are often blamed for causing headaches and other medical problems, but unfairly so. Sulfites are part of many natural things we consume, from dried apricots to molasses. They happen to be a byproduct of fermentation, which is why they’re found in wine. Most winemakers also choose to add sulfites to wine to help protect it from spoiling, which I think is a good thing.

From what I can tell, people get upset about sulfites because of the “contains sulfites” note that’s legally required to appear on wines sold here in the United States. The same wine sold elsewhere doesn’t necessarily come with this warning. Some people—usually those who also suffer from asthma—are sensitive to sulfites, so this information is helpful to them. A sulfite reaction can be a lot like a bad asthma attack, or an outbreak of hives, rather than the headaches or hangovers some people try to pin on sulfites.

So, whether the health risk is real or imagined, there’s a market for wines with limited or no sulfites. Some wines, including those made organically, won’t have any added sulfites, though they’ll still contain trace amounts—again, as a natural byproduct of the fermentation process. I’ve also seen labels promoting wines as “sulfite free,” or as “No Sulfites Detected,” but that means only that in the current testing protocols, there were zero parts per million detected. If there were testing down to parts per billion, they might not be able to make that claim. You might think I’m just being picky here, but there are thresholds for other components in wine that are detected at parts per trillion.

For wineries trying to achieve zero-sulfite detection levels, some winemaking methods can be employed to minimize sulfite levels, most notably a lot of racking. Even so, it’s pretty tough to get down to the “no sulfites detected” level.

—Dr. Vinny

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